Interview :: Angel Olsen on Burn Your Fire For No Witness, Laneway & writing with spite
December 16th 2014
Back in February, we featured Angel Olsen’s second full length record, Burn Your Fire For No Witness, and with good reason: the singer-songwriter has a knack for crafting often dark, country-tinged folk gems that make you lean in just that little bit closer, and this latest release was no exception.
In more recent news, Olsen sneakily added more songs to the album in a recently released Deluxe Edition (which you can purchase here) and totally worked an Elizabethan get-up for a video clip. The Missouri native is currently touring the States to ready herself for St Jerome’s Laneway Festival and accompanying sideshows in Australia early next year. Katie Davern gave Olsen a call to talk about her new album, upbeat songs and the one social equaliser; old school RnB.
Katie: First up, how did you work out that music was your thing?
Angel: I was always kind of addicted to it when I was a little kid so no matter what I was trying to tell myself to do. When I grew up… well there was really nothing I liked more. It’s always been a thing I guess!
I’ve read a few live reviews of your performances and almost everyone has had something to say about your amazing vocal range. Have you ever had any professional vocal training?
No, I’ve just been trying out new stuff. But I think, you know, being someone who’s performing a lot, it kind of strengthens your voice to keep going. Like if you take a long break, your voice – it becomes a weak muscle. I feel like working with other people, working with other bands, I’ve had to blend in and learn how to use my voice in different ways to not overpower or to sing in falsetto and learning how to do that has helped me figure out how to apply it to my own stuff. I dunno, I’m still trying to figure it out. [laughs]
How did you start working as a backing singer?
Well I’ve always played solo until I started working with Bonny Prince Billy, I sang with him – I actually was in Australia with him when he came. We went to Perth and Margaret River and Sydney, Melbourne, we played Adelaide – yeah, it was cool. It was a long time ago.
So your impending visit to Australia for St Jerome’s Laneway Festival won’t be your first visit?
Yeah, but it’ll be the first thing I’ve done with my band that’s anything like that. I’ve been looking forward to it all year!
This year you released your latest album Burn Your Fire For No Witness – was that the first time you’ve put an album together with a full band in mind?
Yeah, well Emily the bassist joined in February after the album was finished and out. But Stewart played the guitar and bass on the album at the time, and we had played as a three piece (Stewart, myself and Josh) when I released my first full length Half Way Home. So they were pretty accustomed to playing with me for those songs, including new songs like ‘Stars’ and ‘Hi-Five’ and ‘Forgiven/Forgotten’. I remember those three, maybe even ‘High and Wild’, we played a lot even before we recorded. I think just having them with Half Way Home, it was really easy to then apply songs to a band (in Burn Your Fire) because I felt very comfortable with them at the time.
That would help, I guess, because a lot of your songs sound quite emotional – is that something you’re drawn to in your songwriting?
Well I never really grew up on country music, but what I do like about the way a lot of 50s and 60s country is written is that they somehow can make something – a subject or a problem that everyone has – relatable as a song, and make it sort of upbeat and have a happy tone. Even if it’s confronting something that’s kind of intense, like divorce or… people leaving each other or finding a different love, or just being very complicated. I think that’s something that’s really cool, it’s almost like a kind of a funny way of writing, a humourous way of talking about stuff and making it easier to address. I guess I like to keep it to a point where every song means something.
I get that vibe from ‘Forgiven/Forgotten’, it sounds so upbeat but it’s a little different to what you’d expect when you take a closer listen.
Yeah definitely very spiteful, like all our songs. [laughs]
This album especially, in comparison to previous albums, is generally more upbeat. What inspired the shift?
Well, I was listening to a lot of like weird, upbeat power pop, punk rock – but I don’t know what exactly inspired the more upbeat sound. I don’t necessarily go home and say I’m going to write this song because I listened to this playing; but I can tell listening to it, it was probably inspired by someone like Roger Miller or something like that. [laughs]
One last question: what are you and the band listening to at the moment then? What should we listen out for in your next release?
What am I listening to? I got really into Scissor Sisters on this last trip, and Melody’s Echo Chamber, I listened to that a lot. We listen to everything, from all music genres really. But I feel like everyone is getting into FKA Twigs a lot and I haven’t really listened to a lot of her stuff but, you know, Beyoncé, we listen to Kendrick a lot…
So we can maybe expect some rap on your next album?
[laughs] Yeah…we listen to a lot of RnB stuff. There are times when we just find songs on the Internet or whatever, we’ll find like 90s weird songs like K-Ci & JoJo.
Yeah. But you know everybody’s kind of into a lot of different types of music, we all like country too.
WHAT :: Angel Olsen at St. Jerome’s Laneway Festival
WHO ELSE :: Flying Lotus, Mac Demarco, Caribou, FKA Twigs, Future Islands, Courtney Barnett, Peter Bibby
WHEN :: Sunday 1 February, 2015
WHERE :: Sydney College of the Arts, Rozelle
TICKETS :: $160 here